Ram Temple plan

A mosque dispute in colonial Lahore could hold lessons for the Babri Masjid case

The Shaheedganj Mosque conflict in the 1930s shows claims driven by faith are best handled by enforcing rule of law.

Twenty two years ago to this day, frenzied mobs set upon the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and tore it down. The incident set off massive riots, the largest the subcontinent has seen since Partition.  In Mumbai alone, around 1,000 people are thought to be have been massacred.

Today, matters have cooled down. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which used the agitation to rise exponentially, now holds an absolute majority in Parliament. The legal dispute itself is over. In 2010, the Allahabad High Court passed a judgment splitting the disputed plot three ways. While the BJP is yet to deliver on its promise of building a “grand” Ram temple, the spot where the Babri Masjid once stood does function as a Hindu place of worship.

Coincidently, Lahore in the 1930s saw a remarkably similar dispute. While in the 1990s, Hindu politicians claimed that a mosque stood over what was once a temple, in Lahore of the 1930s, Muslim politicians claimed that a gurdwara stood over what was once a mosque. It was, to use AG Noorani’s words, “Ayodhya in reverse”. However, the outcomes of the two cases were rather different.

The dispute

A year after the British occupied the Punjab in 1849, a Lahori citizen named Nur Ahmad filed a case against Bhai Jiwan Singh and Ganda Singh, who held possession of the Shaheedganj Mosque. This mosque had been in control of a group of Sikhs for at least two-and-a-half centuries and in the same compound there also existed a gurdwara. The suit was dismissed since Ahmad did not have possession of the structure  ̶  the expected legal outcome. Ahmad was not deterred and filed at least three more cases but all of them fell through. At around the same time, in the 19th century, a very similar legal process was actually followed in the case of the chabutra, or platform, outside the Babri Masjid. Hindu groups sued for ownership of the chabutra but lost on grounds of not having possession (claims to the Babri Masjid structure itself, would be made later)

Back to Lahore: in 1927, the Shaheedganj Mosque was formally passed into the care of the newly formed Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. Immediately, there were objections from Muslim groups and after a protracted series of legal cases, the Lahore High Court ruled in favour of the SGPC on the grounds that the mosque had long since ceased being used for Muslim worship and had passed into Sikh hands since at least 1852. To compare, the Babri Masjid site had been in Muslim hands since at least 1528, a time period more than 300 years longer than Shaheedganj.

Soon after winning the case, the SGPC decided to the clear the compound of all “un-Sikh like deviations and non-Sikh usages”. On the night of July 8, 1935, the Sikhs in control of the compound demolished the mosque, placing Lahore on communal tenterhooks. Just like in 1992, the majority community, fired by religious fervour, wanted control over a place of worship that they had no legal claim to.

By October, 1935 we were seeing a familiar pattern: Muslims had started a programme of civil disobedience, trying to take the property by force. By October 1935, Lahore had seen Sikh-Muslim riots over the issue.

How it was resolved

Here, however, things start to diverge from Babri. Unlike in Uttar Pradesh, Lahore’s colonial administration was extremely strict with protestors.  It opened fire on agitating Muslim crowds when they tried to take the compound by force and arrested leaders of the agitation, at one time even barging into the city’s biggest mosque, the Badhshahi Masjid to apprehend Maula Bakhsh and Yasub-ul-Hasan, the main leaders of the civil disobedience at the time.

One more difference was that the movement was confined to minor politicians ‒ unlike the BJP in independent India, the bigwigs of the time never took up the case of Shaheedganj. At the time, the premier of the Punjab was Fazl-i-Husain, who led a pro-British, cross-communal party of landlords, called the Unionists. This sort of grassroots communal agitation was harmful for the Unionists, who had within them Muslim, Hindu as well as Sikh zamindars. Fazl-i-Husain, therefore, quite explicitly advised Muslims to give up claims to Shaheedganj. He writes in his diary:
Various people came to me about the Shahidganj Mosque. I advised them to drop the matter, and then something may transpire to improve matters, but that there was no advance possible at this stage. They protested that this meant defeat. I told them that they have been defeated in this matter at all stages and my advice is to court no more defeats.

Herbert Emerson, then Governor of the Punjab, invited Jinnah over to Lahore to further calm matters. Jinnah was largely a non-entity in Punjab at the time but the Muslim League did have some influence over the urban population of Lahore who were the main party in this case.

Khalid Guaba, a local Punjabi politician who chaperoned Jinnah around, has left us a humorous portrait of the visit. On being asked to go to the Friday prayers at the Badshahi Mosque, Jinnah initially refused. As it turned out, Jinnah did not know how to read the namaaz. Gauba claims he gave Jinnah “a few lesson as to the posture he had to make” while praying, however at the mosque, unable to physically go down on his knees, Jinnah simply squatted down on the floor of the mosque with “his knees and hands folded”.

Jinnah's visit

This aside, Jinnah’s visit proved successful. He set up a peace board with representatives of all communities.  During a speech, Jinnah lamented that nowadays there were no cross-community leaders and recalled his mentor from Mumbai, saying, “Give me more Gokhales”. BR Nanda writes that Jinnah was successful in “securing the revocation of civil disobedience by Muslim firebrands, and lowering the communal temperature.”

Shorn of political oxygen, the movement for the Shaheedganj Mosque collapsed. Soon enough, the SGPC constructed a gurdwara at the site of the now-demolished Shaheedganj Mosque.

The legal side of the issue dragged on till 1940 when the case was discussed in the Privy Council  ̶  the court of ultimate appeal in British India. Unlike the Allahabad High Court in 2010, however, the Privy Council did not get bogged down with medieval history or religious belief in order to decide what was essentially a property dispute. In line with lower court judgements, it simply dismissed the Muslim side’s claim, citing the statute of limitations, noting that the property has been under Sikh control for a sufficient length of time.

This ended the matter. The Shaheedganj Gurdwara, constructed at the site, still exists in Lahore.

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